Words of Wisdom

Wisdom. What is Wisdom? How do we go about finding it? How do we go about making it? In the Hebrew Bible, Wisdom is referred to hundreds of times – always reverently. And Wisdom, in the Hebrew Bible is longed for, sought after, and can always be depended upon... but Wisdom is not always honored by the greater culture, and not always heeded by the people.

Defining Wisdom is a little tough, right? In the Hebrew Bible, Wisdom feels like more than just knowledge or experience or good judgment. Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible feels like a spiritual journey, a life-long quest, something far greater than what any one person can ever achieve on their own.

In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom, as we have seen in our reading this evening, even takes on a life of her own. She is personified as a feminine aspect of God. She is described as being present with God even before Creation and she participates in God’s activity in the world.

Wisdom herself stands in the streets, on the busiest corner, by the city gates where everyone comes in and out and and she cries out. When she speaks in her own voice, she doesn’t offer proverbs or deep thoughts, she desperately tries to get the world to listen to her. “Just listen, please! How long will you ignore me? How long will you act so foolishly? You’re on the road to disaster. Calamity is coming. And when it comes, you will cry out for me, but I will not answer.”

All Wisdom can do is to beg us to heed her before it’s too late – before the damage is done, before her modest powers for maintaining peace and justice have been so ignored that they can’t bring the world back into balance again. And without Wisdom to level the scales, disaster, She warns, will knock the whole table over. When you hear her words – Wisdom’s frustration, her angry warnings – does it seem to you like anyone is really paying any attention to Wisdom?

Does this picture of Wisdom ignored, painted thousands of years ago, ring true to you today? How many followers do you think Wisdom would have on Twitter? The UCC Just Peace Twitter account has 1,659 followers. Donald Trump has 54.4 million. And I can begin to understand why Wisdom sounds so darn angry.

As we look over the ways that social and online medias are transforming what we say and how we say it, from 24-hour news cycles to Twitter to Youtube, we discover we’re being offered up clickbait headlines, fake news, echo chambers, death threats, internet mobs, increasing political polarity, cat videos (nothing wrong with them). But very little real Wisdom. The internet and our current political moment are sucking us in by appealing to our basest instincts and emotions – our outrage, our anger, and our hate. The worst behaviors online rise to the top, get the most clicks, the most likes, the most shares. This is a very unwise reward system, isn’t it? And it is proving itself to be dangerous to and undermining of our social values, of our democratic need to dialogue, and of our Christian obligation to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

James gets it. Just a few verses after the end of our second reading this evening, he offers us up a definition of Wisdom. He says, “…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Wow. Is that what we have in our national dialogue? In our cultural and political discourses? It’s like James is describing the exact opposite of our media’s most trending speech – speech which is too often full of the folly of hatred, judgment, bullying, and violence.

Social Media has gotten one thing very right: We need other people. But it’s gotten other things very wrong. For instance, the freedom to say and share anything both anonymously and without any cost, does not bring out the best in our natures or in the quality of what we will say or what we will consume when we log on. Beloved, Wisdom is out there, crying out as best she can along the digital highways, but she is being drown out by hate and bypassed by algorithms that reward not wisdom, but foolishness.

True Wisdom is a Way. It’s a culture of being. True Wisdom is bigger than any one person. So, in order to discover Wisdom again, we need other people. And we need the very best of our culture and our institutions and our elders to instruct us in the ways of the wise throughout the course of active lives spent engaged with trying to solve problems with other people. In order to find Wisdom and to share Wisdom again, we need to seek out ways of building real relationships, dialogue, and trust with our neighbors and with our cultural institutions. And if we fail to figure out how to curtail, transform, or counterbalance the divisive nature of our violent speech online and elsewhere, calamity and disaster may well strike us all.

Again, I think James in our reading this evening gets it. It all begins with speech. If we can control the way we speak of others and to others, then we are in control of the whole shebang and we can sail on Wisdom winds wherever she takes us. But if we don’t have control of the ship, then the storms of panic and the whirlwinds of calamity are going to blow you to straight to where you don’t want to go.

James begins to really enjoy himself when he starts talking about tongues – they are full of hellfire and poison and any beast, reptile, sea monster even would be easier to tame than our tongues! That’s fun. But then he gets down to his main point about what’s gone wrong with the tongue: “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” James isn’t talking about naughty words or potty mouths, he’s talking about hate speech – the small spark that can set off a great fire and curse those who were made in God’s image.

I first started thinking critically about the impact of hate speech and violent speech about ten years ago. By hate speech I mean any speech that attacks a person or group of people based on characteristics such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status. By violent speech I mean any form or style of communication that can result in harm to others and to our relationships – judgment, yelling, blaming, whataboutism, obfuscating, deceiving, spinning, tweeting in ALL CAPS, etc.

Ten years ago I was working at Judson Memorial Church and we became concerned with all the hate speech – especially hate speech against immigrants – on talk radio and on television. This was way back when Facebook had millions of users, not billions, and when Twitter had tens of thousands of tweets a day, not ten thousand tweets a second – so the whole social media aspect hadn’t really taken off yet. But the rhetoric was being turned up and there was plenty of reason for concern. Conservative media was furious about Obama’s election, the unauthorized migrant population in the US was still growing, and hate crimes were on the rise. In one particularly horrible example, a group of Long Island High School students attacked an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, beat and stabbed him to death for no reason other than the fact that they hated him – he who was made in the likeness of God – for being an immigrant, a Latino.

We felt sure that at least some of the violence against immigrants was beginning with dehumanizing hate speech, and that this hate speech was, in some sense, also violent. We started a project called Words of Wisdom because we felt that unless we found a way to call out hate speech and offer alternative standards for communication that the situation would only grow worse. Maybe we bit off more than one little church project could hope to achieve. And maybe we were a little ahead of our time. Obviously, we didn’t have an influential impact on the cultural dialogue. But the project helped us to think more clearly about the New Sanctuary Coalition and just what we were up against in terms of hate speech from the right, and what we became sure was yet to come.

In the decade that has followed, things have only gotten obviously worse. The worst hate speech against immigrants on lonely talk radio stations and FOX NEWS in 2008 became the opening lines of Donald Trump’s speech announcing his candidacy for president in 2015 when he called Mexican migrants rapists and murders. Social Media has further lowered the bar on what is acceptable to say and made it easier to find a niche hate audience. And I don’t doubt that the words of hate directed at Latinos ten years ago became seeds that bore the fruit of the violence and degradation of family separations at the border this summer. The more I’ve reflected on it, the more and more it seems clear that the policy was simply a hate crime.

I think that for us, as Christians, as a JUST PEACE church, there are three ways to move forward.

First, we have to heed, honor, and grow Wisdom in our own lives. As a church, we have a rich history of working for peace and justice and we have done considerable work in trying to preserve and publicize that history. We have a unique Wisdom Tradition that we are the caretakers of. And Wisdom is also active, forward looking, creating. Wisdom is not about having knowledge, Wisdom is about living out the very best of your tradition. I’ve been impressed and inspired by the work the Just Peace committee has done over the last few months as they have positioned us to really begin to put our Wisdom into action.

Second, and related to the first, we have to resist the hate, the outrage, and the unhealthy communication that our culture is embroiled in. We have to recognize it, we have to call it out, and we have to make it clear that hate speech and violent communication against anyone is unacceptable to us. AND we have to resist slipping into the unwise ways of othering and hating. One of the developments over the last ten years has been an increase in polarizing language, violent communication, and even occasionally stuff that sounds a lot like hate speech from the Left. It’s very tempting to demonize the demonizers, to try to write them all off at once, to ridicule them, to make sweeping statements and assumptions about “those people.” But that is not wise and it does not live up to the very best of Wisdom, which is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy, which refuses to curse those who were made in the likeness of God. We must stand up against racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, sexism, toxic masculinity, homophobia; we must not compromise; and we must be wise – wise as serpents – about how we will transform and heal and love the whole world.

Third, and related to the first and the second, we need to make our church a viable alternative to the destructive patterns we’re witnessing in the greater culture. We need to make ourselves available and accessible to all those out in the Upper West Side, out in the five boroughs, who are dreaming of another way. When trust is faltering, we need to project ethical reliability. When institutions are failing, we need to discover and proclaim the source of our thriving. When dialogue is breaking down, we need to engage in meaningful, public conversations and weigh in on pressing issues. When hate and division are threatening our common life together, we need to heed and to be Wisdom. When the virtual world is leaving everyone feeling burned out and hopeless, we need to throw the doors open wide to a real-life, local, spiritual home that is welcoming of everybody – and that is standing up for them too.

Amen, church?